Wednesday, February 12th, 2014: a Faith and Women’s Role in Community and Family Health in Africa panel was held at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs. Karen Sichinga of the Churches Health Association of Zambia and Professor Myriam Vuckovic of Georgetown’s International Health Department discussed women’s roles in the community and health. Katherine Marshall, the executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, moderated the event. Faculty of the Berkley Center and Georgetown students were in attendance.
Karen Sichinga’s current work focuses on ethics and practice for the Churches Health Association of Zambia. The Churches Health Association of Zambia (CHAZ), the second largest health care provider in Zambia, is a network of Catholic and Protestant Hospital of 151 hospitals and clinics, which works closely with the ministry of health. In efforts to address the Millennium Development Goals 4 and 5, CHAZ has implemented several programs. As a unique program to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality, CHAZ developed mother waiting homes for women late in their pregnancy or near their delivery dates to stay in near the hospital. This is an effort to increase the number of births attended by a skilled birth attendant. Currently 44.6% of births in Zambia are home deliveries because the distance to the hospital is too far to travel once in labor; unfortunately, a skilled birth attendant very rarely attends these births.
CHAZ also has trained community health workers to distribute family planning methods in the community. As a religiously affiliated organization, distributing family planning methods can be difficult. Catholics prefer natural methods; however, referrals are made to community health workers or government hospitals and all methods are promoted. To address the HIV/AIDS epidemic, CHAZ works on prevention of mother-to-child transmission as well as educating men and involving them in the fight through male circumcision. In response to a question about whether religion and religious leaders played a positive role in the prevention of HIV/AIDS, Ms. Sichinga explained that at first they were opposed to certain advertisements because they seemed to promote sexual activity rather than use of condoms during sexual activity. The advertisements have since been modified. Over time, religious leaders have become more active and collaborative in the fight against HIV/AIDS, specifically after realizing that HIV/AIDS knows no face or religion and affects everyone. Ms. Sichinga’s experiences and knowledge illustrated further that the participation of religious leaders and women in combating health issues is crucial.
Professor Myriam Vuckovic has extensive experience in Africa from her work with the German International Cooperation (GIZ) in Tanzania, where she collaborated with the Tanzanian Government on HIV prevention and sexual and reproductive health issues. After Ms. Sichinga’s discussion of maternal health issues in Zambia, Ms. Vuckovic acknowledged many similarities in Tanzania, such as the development of waiting homes near health clinics for expecting mothers. She explained how in the U.S. or other high-income countries, most pregnant women do not have to worry about accessing health services.
Accessing health services in rural areas of Africa is especially difficult. However, many faith-based organizations (FBO) provide the majority of health services in rural areas of Tanzania and Zambia where government facilities do not reach. The quality of healthcare and employees is generally higher than in government facilities, but FBOs tend to only provide 10% of reproductive health services, and only 7% of contraception. Government services, as well as other NGOs and private facilities, provide contraception and reproductive health services, but with scarce presence in rural areas, nearly 25% of women that desire access to contraception are unable to access it. Ms. Vuckovic found that when trained community health workers distributed contraception to households, use of family planning increased, since women did not have to travel to health clinics. She illustrated the collaboration among faith-based organizations, government facilities, and women to tackle various health issues, but seemed to acknowledge that while faith-based organizations are crucial in rural areas of Africa, reproductive health issues are still difficult to address.